Friday, June 29, 2012

Minding the Gaps: "Farther Away" by Jonathan Franzen

Whenever the works or opinions of Jonathan Franzen come up in my conversations, I have a ready reply that I've shared many, many times: I admire the man's writing and devotion to a sometimes old-fashioned view of literature, but I tend to agree with his critics more often than not (and on a side note, the Twitter parody @EmperorFranzen is consistently hilarious). However, with these admissions in mind, I believe it shows my own evolution as a reader, to be able to balance and assess my own enjoyment of a person's writings and my respect of his critics. It's a far cry from the almost crazed fanaticism of my early and late teens in which I'd latch on to a "favorite" author and be so captivated to not realize his or her shortcomings. When Freedom was published in 2009, my own review (and a couple of follow-up essays) made mention of the critiques, ideas that were not against Franzen directly, but necessary wonders of whether or not the novel would have been as highly acclaimed had it been written by a female or minority author and not someone eight years removed from the massive critical and commercial success of The Corrections. In that time, Franzen has published a handful of essays (included in his newest collection, Farther Away) that at best engage American sensibilities of technology and community, and at worst make him come off as more cantankerous than normal. However, this collection has its share of bright spots, notably his attempts to call more attention to environmental issues.

The opening essay is carefully placed, and upon getting into it, the reader finds the unexpected soul of Franzen's arguments. The essay, a reprint of a 2011 commencement speech, starts off as a rant against technological advances and how dangerously close people come to "loving" their devices and social media outlets. However, the meaning of the speech is important, a plea to engage the world for what it contains, rather than engaging it via filtered "likes," gadgetry, and consumerism.

"Let me suggest, finally, that the world of technoconsumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn (Franzen 6)."

"But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist--a person who can't tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable (Franzen 7)."

These ideas are manifested in a more concrete manner in his widely circulated piece "I Just Called To Say I Love You." In this, he acknowledges his critics (a few self-references to himself as 'Grampaw'), and explores our cell-phone transfixed culture through the constant, powerful phrase "I love you," constantly yelled into phones in public spaces when the three words are meant to be private, sometimes little-used declarations. Again, he starts off with a tone that balances on deplorable pessimism, but then works itself into a touching look at his family connections and our post-9/11 world. To borrow a phrase of his from the 1990s, what looks like hate is actually tough love.

"The cell phone came of age on September 11, 2001. Imprinted that day on our collective consciousness was the image of cell phones as conduits of intimacy for the desperate. In every too-loud I-love-you that I hear nowadays, as in the more general national orgy of connectedness--the imperative for parents and children to connect by phone once or twice or five or ten times daily--it's difficult not to hear an echo of those terrible, entirely appropriate I-love-yous uttered on the four doomed planes and in the two doomed towers. And it's precisely this echo, the fact that it's an echo, the sentimentality of it, that so irritates me (Franzen 150)."

My favorite pieces in Farther Away are the essays documenting Franzen's travels abroad, sometimes for adventure and bird-watching, but more often for journalistic reportage of how the world, through its human oversight and carelessness, is creating dangerous conditions for birds and wildlife. His trip to Cyprus, documented in "The Ugly Mediterranean," is a firsthand look at rebellious conservationists who often find themselves the target of poachers and lax government regulations on bird poaching. But it also turns into a fascinating cultural report, showing how poaching is tied to generations of men in the country who view it as a birthright and a token of masculinity. The writing is carefully precise, and with the exception of the emphasis on birds, Franzen himself tends to disappear, and he becomes an impassioned journalist.

"The Republic of Malta, which consists of several densely populated chunks of limestone with collectively less than twice the area of the District of Columbia, is the most savagely bird-hostile place in Europe. There are twelve thousand registered hunters (about three percent of the country's population), a large number of whom consider it their birthright to shoot any bird unlucky enough to migrate over Malta, regardless of the season or the bird's protection status. The Maltese shoot bee-eaters, hoopoes, golden orioles, shearwaters, storks, and herons. They stand outside the fences of the international airport and shoot swallows for target practice. They shoot from urban rooftops and from the side of busy roads. They stand in closely spaced cliffside bunkers and mow down flocks of migrating hawks. They shoot endangered raptors, such as lesser spotted eagles and pallid harriers, that governments farther north in Europe are spending millions of euros to conserve. Rarities are stuffed and added to trophy collections; nonrarities are left on the ground or buried under rocks, as not to incriminate their shooters (Franzen 86-87)."

Like any work of non-fiction, some of the essays are enjoyable than others, and Franzen does stumble on occasion. "Interview With New York State" presents a rambling history of the state as told through a series of "interviews" with Franzen and the state's PR handlers. The idea is quite funny, but after awhile, it becomes tedious, even though there are the occasional nuggets of historical facts. I find Franzen to be at his most humorous when he deploys the occasional use of folly and hilarity, instead of attempting to sustain it for an entire piece. I enjoyed the book reviews scattered throughout, but I haven't read any of the books he mentions, so I'm withholding creative opinions, but based on his past reviews of works I'm familiar with, his literary criticism is almost always on the mark. At the very least, his references gave me some new titles to add to my list.

There are two pieces about the late David Foster Wallace, and it's impossible to explore them without making mention of some of Franzen's biggest critics. Some people feel he's getting a lot of mileage out of his friendship with Wallace, or that he has claimed Wallace's suicide was done out for legacy's sake. The writings presented here are beautifully touching, and from what I got from them, it's the case of a writer being completely open and honest about a troubled friend, taking every conceivable angle, but never downplaying the depression that led to Wallace's final act. There's love and anger mixed together, the only natural reactions to such a loss. Franzen never sugarcoats his emotions, and to some, that might be viewed as needlessly harsh.

"He was sick, yes, and in a sense the story of my friendship with him is simply that I loved a person who was mentally ill. The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took him away from us and made the person into a very public legend. People who had never read his fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in The Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul. A literary establishment that had never so much as short-listed one of his books for a national prize now united to declare him a lost national treasure. Of course, he was a national treasure, and, being a writer, he didn't 'belong' to his readers any less than to me (Franzen 38)."

Being such a public literary figure, Franzen will always have his share of detractors, especially when he talks or writes in the opinionated ways we all tend to do. However, none of his own pet peeves originate from spite or general crankiness--he attempts to share his view of the world with highlights of the solutions and reasons for his demeanor. My mention of sometimes agreeing with his critics is in no way an attempt to soften or apologize for my admiration of him, which goes back almost ten years, when I devoured his literary essays in How To Be Alone. Like any artist, he's not perfect, both creatively or personally, but the complexities make him that much more accessible to me. Farther Away is full of thought-provoking material and excellent nonfiction narratives, and he never asks the reader to share his passions or agree with him all the time, but rather to allow him his opinions and then judge for themselves. My own championing of his literary criticism and overall writings likely won't sway anyone who disagrees with him, but I'm hoping to keep this in mind the next time I encounter a writer or artist who rubs me the wrong way, and continue to separate the writings from the public opinions. Love Franzen or hate him, but it's almost impossible to not be at least partially drawn by his subjects and goals.

Work Cited:
Franzen, Jonathan. Farther Away: Essays. Copyright 2012 by Jonathan Franzen.


justin jones said...

I stumbled upon your blog this afternoon, Ex-Pat, and I'm happy I did. Your writings are wonderful and, I find in many instances, validating.

James Yates said...

Justin--thank you so much for the kind words! And if I ever write anything you don't agree with, I'll welcome those comments too--I'm all about dialogue, discussions, and constructive criticism. Hope you keep coming back, and thank you again.

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